The African Microbiome Institute (AMI)
Following a series of informal meetings which highlighted the exciting new developments in the identification, definition, and characterization of the human microbiome and its relationship to health and disease, a group of scientists from Stellenbosch University Faculties of Medicine and Health Sciences, Natural Science and AgriSciences got together to propose the development of an African Microbiome Institute. Following strong motivation from the group, the University approved the organizational structure and establishment of the AMI in 2017.
The Institute is unique in Africa, primarily because of its cross-faculty nature, which will stimulate the comprehensive study of the ecology of the microbiome from water, to soil, to plants, and finally to animals and humans. Given the rapid industrialization, migration and urbanization of the African people and the impact this is likely to have on our relationship with our environment, it is of fundamental importance to develop a deep understanding on our interactions with our microbiological environment and the factors that modify it.
The goal of the AMI will be to serve a central resource that will integrate, develop, and exploit our multidisciplinary expertise. Studies are only beginning to appear that show the human microbiome is not an isolated 'organ' within the body, but rather a system that is in continuous contact with our environment that senses changes and signals immunological responses within our body that prevent disease and support survival. For example, the gains that modern medicine has made in extending our lifespan are marred by the increasing morbidity and mortality from westernized diseases (e.g. colon, breast, lung, prostate cancers, obesity, diabetes, atherosclerosis, allergy, autoimmune disorders) which are all associated with abnormalities in the microbiome related to a fiber-deficient, high meat, high fat, high calorie 'western' diet.
While most biologists have for some time agreed that microbial ecosystems are at the base of all biotic activities, it is only now that we are beginning to understand the extent to which these ecosystems support specific functions within individual organisms that enables them to promote the health of plants, animals and humans in a very direct way.
The goals of our cross-faculty Institute is to promote microbiome-related research at SU and foster collaborative networks within Africa. This will be achieved in many ways, including:
- The creation of a University forum for multidisciplinary scientific discussion and debate with the aim of growing local expertise in DNA and RNA sequencing, proteomics, metabolomics and bioinformatics as relevant to the microbiome
- The construction of university, national, and international networks of microbiome scientists
- The development of courses, training, mentorship, grant writing, and publication facilities
- Stimulate the development of complex analytical techniques and interpretative models based on systems biological approaches
The microbiota represent
life itself, beginning in the oceans, moving on to land colonizing the soil,
fresh water, the plants, the animals, and humans. The process has been
accelerated and modified by agriculture and industrialization, and
The traditional African lifestyle, with home production of corn (mielies), beans and vegetables associated with a fiber-rich plant based diet which is associated with an extended lifespan uncomplicated by chronic non-infective westernized diseases, e.g. cancer of the colon, breast, liver, prostate, pancreas, atherosclerosis, diabetes and obesity (Reynolds et al. Lancet 2019). There is robust evidence that this is driven by the colonic microbial fermentation of fiber to short chain fatty acids and the release of phytochemicals.